by: Kristina Bravo

Posted: Apr 27, 2020 / 09:24 AM PDT
/ Updated: Apr 27, 2020 / 01:55 PM PDT

Los Angeles County will use a shuttered women’s jail in Monterey Park to decontaminate N95 masks so that first responders can reuse them, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday.

The department will work with the L.A. County Department of Health Services and Fire Department on the initiative, which Villanueva said will save money amid rising costs and the dwindling supply of N95 masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to deputies, county firefighters and health care workers will receive reusable N95s through the project.

The Sybil Brand Institute housed female inmates until it shut down in 1997 after the Northridge earthquake significantly damaged the facility years earlier.

To disinfect N95s, the center will use a sterilization process called hydrogen peroxide vaporization, which the U.S. Food and Drug administration recently approved to mitigate the shortage of N95s.

Authorities estimate that the center will be able to decontaminate about 30,000 masks a day. This will enable front-line workers to reuse the same N95 masks up to 20 times, per federal guidelines, and the county, including the Sheriff’s Department, to save about $18 million dollars, Villanueva said.

Department of Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said with the lead of the Sheriff’s Department, county officials consulted with experts on the initiative.

The project will help supply the four public hospitals and 26 clinics operated by the DHS, Ghaly said.

County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said it will also help his department’s 170 fire stations respond to the more than 1,100 emergency calls they receive daily.

Wesley Grose, the Sheriff’s Department’s director of scientific services bureau, said the masks will be rigorously tested for safety after the decontamination process.

“We don’t want anyone to have any concerns about the masks that they would be receiving, so we will have an ongoing part of the process where we review the results,” Grose said.

The sheriff discussed the plan in his weekly COVID-19 news conference, where he acknowledged budget challenges as the county responds to the pandemic.

Asked if he would take a pay cut, he said, “If I have to step up to the plate and reduce my salary, well, as a leader, we have to set the example for every single county employee.”

As of Monday, the number of sheriff’s deputies and personnel who have tested positive for the coronavirus has stayed flat at 61.

Meanwhile, 71 inmates have tested positive for the virus, including 31 who have recovered, the county reported.

The Sheriff’s Department continues its effort to keep its inmate population down, including releasing “virtually all” those with misdemeanor and non-violent records, Villanueva said.

The jail system is currently only testing incoming inmates who show symptoms, according to the sheriff.

“Our goal is to get to the point where we can test everyone coming in, but we have to build up to that capacity,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story provided an incorrect year for the closure of the Sybil Brand Institute. This post has been updated.

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